A. Laurie Palmer is an artist, writer, and teacher. Her work is “concerned, most immediately, with resistance to privatization, and more generally, with theoretical and material explorations of matter’s active nature as it asserts itself on different scales and in different speeds”. Most recently, she has pursued an extended exploration of mineral extraction sites in the U.S. In this interview she discusses a number of her early solo projects as well as large-scale and long-term collaborations including 3 Acres On The Lake, Chicago Torture justice Memorials and Haha. In 2008, WhiteWalls Press published With Love from Haha documenting twenty years of Haha’s site-based work including Flood (1992-95) which was initiated as part of Sculpture Chicago’s Culture In Action series. Laurie was interviewed in her office in the Sculpture Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where she works as a professor on February 1st, 2013.
Daniel Tucker (DT): Something I wanted to dive into is about the open-call form. Something that I’ve been really interested in in being an observer of the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials effort currently underway are some of the similarities to your 3 Acres On The Lake: DuSable Park Proposal Project (2000-2003). I wondered if you could talk a little about any sort of prehistories or influences on that form or way of engaging people? Where does this come from?
Laurie Palmer (LP): I didn’t think about prehistories of that form in particular when I started the 3 Acres project. I was working with the Friends of the Parks around the DuSable project and the Haitian Association of Chicago and the DuSable League to try to revive public interest in the park. For me, it began with a question “what is going on with this park and why is it here” and then I asked, “Why don’t you guys do a call for proposals?” And they said, “We’ve done stuff in the past for other sites and they are all in the closet still and nothing ever went anywhere, it was a waste of energy.”
The form is such a tried and true form for public art and for architecture. But when they were talking about the specific problems that they were having with it that’s when it occurred to me that it was perfect as an art project because of my interest in participatory publics and in there not being a final outcome… Which is what they were saying, “We could never get the final outcome, it was problematic.”
I was so not interested in a final outcome. I was interested in a lot of people potentially getting really inside the questions that the publicness of the park raised and feeling like it was their city and their park and like that. So, it was always, it seemed to have the potential for, distributed structure, distributed form more than to reach a final conclusion…and it developed that way.
And then I did another version for a call of proposals that was less encompassing for the Notions of Expenditure project (2004-2005)…It was more of an art project and a little bit contrived, I guess contrived is the word. I am still really glad that we did it and there were maybe thirty or forty submissions and we ended up reproducing ten in multiples and putting them on the CTA. But that was a kind of… It was more contained as a project and I didn’t think I’d be doing that form again. It just seemed like the DuSable project was perfect for it, but maybe that was it. And then Joey Mogul (lawyer with People’s Law Office) approached me and said, “What do you think about trying to use that structure that you used for DuSable Park with the Torture cases.” And then she and Amy Partridge and I had a conversation… So, I think that the proposal form is just a form, and it works well or less well for different kinds of things.
DT: Now, is it something that you had ever been on the other side of things with, where you were a submitter to a public art call for proposals?
LP: Yes, in fact I have done a couple of submissions like that. And right before DuSable Park, I finished a large, permanent public art project in Austria and that was so compromised by the end that I remember saying, “I’m really not interested in this version of public art where you only get to have one.” It is the typical public art problem, and by the end it has to satisfy so many constituents and other conditions. In some ways that is the beauty of it if it leads to a lot of conversation. It is the Rosalyn Deutsche argument that the conflictual conversations themselves create a form of participatory democracy in the process of discussing what gets made but the Austrian project wasn’t sited that way, it was more of a process that happened between the Austrian officials and the curator and me … I’m very glad I did it but anyway, it was a different kind of thing.
I did submit to a couple of other [calls]…. Because of that project I got my name on the Chicago Public Art list and I would get solicitations for submissions and many of them were to commemorate something I would have no interest in commemorating. And others were going to be so fraught. I respect people who responded to the Haymarket memorial call and at the time that that came through I really tried to figure out how to do that and I just knew I would feel so disappointed with whatever it was that was possible for me to do, if for some reason I was chosen. Which is not to say anything about what did get made, it’s great that it got made. I just felt its not a form I want to be putting my energies into.
DT: If you could describe a little bit about the story of 3 Acres. And something that I am particularly interested is about the relationship between the Shaping Time project (1992-1996) and the 3 Acres, both deal with ongoing encounters with a site or a vantage point. And you found these forms to deal with the ongoing curiosity and that it really came from a long term engagement with being curious about it, led to a material resolution or a social resolution. I’m curious about that.
LP: That connection makes sense to me. One of the things I notice when I look at some of my earlier writing compared with more current writing, there are certain verbal tropes that reveal a similar relationship to site that you are talking about. And sometimes I think, “Oh god Laurie, you just write the same way over and over again. Like you have a glitch.” But I think what you are saying is a more generous approach, which is that there’s a habit of engagement…I definitely feel on-goingness and a kind of open relationship to not only a place but to the making process. I have a real allergy to closure so I think that leads to wanting to do very inclusive projects and also to [the work] not being closed in time either.
It is interesting though to put the Shaping Time piece, which is a really bad title, I have to say, but anyway, that one next to 3 Acres because they come from [important moments]… one before and one after, when I distinctly remember feeling “Oh, I live in Chicago.”. I moved into an apartment with my lover in 1996 in Uptown, and I think it took us a couple of years to get used to that and get used to Uptown and find out what was happening, but that’s when I had that realization. You know? And to think that I had been here all these years before and all the time with Haha and even during the Flood years (1992-1995) and I always thought I was going somewhere else, I just never really seriously felt that I lived here. Even though a lot of Haha’s stuff was site-specific, and community-engaged also, I just…I didn’t take it in. Well, what happened in Uptown is that it became where we lived and who we spent time with, like a lot of our time, working on activist anti-gentrification projects. It was so fused and I was so happy to feel located.
In Shaping Time I was still looking elsewhere, looking across the ocean of the lake to, for, something. And then the DuSable Park project was right here. It is interesting. It provokes a lot of emotion to be saying that because it was so surprising to feel, that there’s so much here. And then this tiny little piece of land, you just scratch the surface and you find out there is so much going on. And instead of it feeling like a lot of closed doors or that all these people have been trying to do stuff with it and never had been able to and its limbo state seeming like an impossible situation, instead it seemed like a really rich and really fertile bunch of questions that were appropriate to, that could be by analogy relevant to, a lot of other sites. But all the same questions were right here too.
So, in terms of you asking about how that started, I noticed this place and just started asking around, so what’s the story, why is there this meadow, I wanted to go there to pick Goldenrod to make dye, I wanted to get access to it, and I don’t know what I was going to do with a goldenrod dye. I had a very romantic projection onto the land, and then I started to find out the history of Harold Washington having dedicated it to DuSable and then of Martin Puryear having developed a sculpture for it, plans for one. And all these plans that had never been followed through with. And then also all the excuses why, various things like there’s some radioactive thorium embedded in the land that was dumped from a former, I think it was a watch factory in Streeterville, and they just scooped up the land there and dumped it on DuSable Park and it had leftover Thorium in it. And also [I was finding out about the] public private nature [of the site]..I had to file FOIA documents which is always such a really interesting thing to do and….
DT: Was that the first time you had done that?
LP: Yes. So that actually came back with a lot more questions. And at that point also, Brett Bloom and others were doing Temporary Services, Brett and Salem and Marc and I think Lora was in on it then too, and I can’t remember, maybe Kevin, and so I had been talking to them about doing something about the park, like presenting the questions in a show in their gallery on State Street, State and Monroe or Madison, it was upstairs in a funny office-like space, and then Brett heard something, there was some decision, nobody had been talking about the park or even thinking about it, it wasn’t in the news, and suddenly he got in touch with me and said, “Oh, they are going to make it into a parking lot.”
That started the wheels moving really quickly and put me in touch with Friends of the Parks and then it became an issue of finding all the other stakeholders who were interested in not having their planned memorial flattened into asphalt. And so that is when the alliance formed to create this project with the DuSable League women, there were only five or six women, left in the DuSable League that started in the 1920s. Once I learned about them and started meeting them, I found out that my friend Esther Parada had done a piece about and with the DuSable League maybe ten years earlier. I probably even had seen that piece but I hadn’t put it together with these women. So, Esther got involved too with the DuSable Park project as well. And then, I’m trying to remember now the names of the women: Virginia Julian, Bessie Neal, Mary Tynes, Dulsie Cargill, Joan Pilot, and Linda Wheeler. They are really fabulous women.
DT: There are many different ways to look at that project and something that I’m interested in about your own position within it is how you feel like your role shifted as various layers were revealed, either that you revealed or they were revealed to you? Because there are aspects of the project that have a “concerned citizen” kind of curiosity, and then there are aspects where you are functioning more of a maker and framer of things, and then there are other parts where you were more of a facilitator between different constituencies, which is more a community organizer role, and then there is another layer where you are in some ways a curator or a commissioning body that is doing a Call For Proposals. I’m curious if you could describe some of that for yourself but also thinking back to what of those experiences might be related to other positions you’ve occupied.
LP: Yes, one of the roles that you didn’t mention was teacher, which I think was there for me too… Because I have been steadily teaching and I think it has in many ways permeated many aspects of my art practice. In fact, someone told me recently, “your works are so pedagogical.” And they didn’t mean it as didactic, or critically, I don’t think, I think they meant it as if there was hope. It was nice… I think they meant it as a desire to engage people in their own processes of learning. And I think that there is a way that the structure of the DuSable Park project was also about that and there is something about that that gives me pleasure because one of the things that happens as a teacher is that you get to see all of these fires light up. And there is just no way that you could ever have imagined all of these fires coming out of initial assignments. So in a way it was kind of an assignment and all the participants make it a world, many worlds. So that was really wonderful and I was not apologetic about its pedagogical nature at all.
I also felt my artist role very strongly. In framing the project I invested that land with so much of my own projected “stuff” and I feel like it was okay to do that because then the invitation gets extended to others to invest it with whatever projected stuff they have. I think that a role that I sometimes find myself taking or wanting to take and then wondering why I want to take it — because it is a way of trying to encompass something wholly—, is a theoretical one. I felt, this is a version of the virtual because all these possible parks get to exist at the same time. And to me that felt like art, basically an imaginary reality that exists simultaneously with the actual, in more or less the same space. You know, in the sense that everybody could have their way, their own public art, and at the same time. That is not literally true, but in some sense…
What happened to the park since is a whole other story, but the fact that it is still in limbo kind of allows those sixty four proposals to still be what the park is, for me anyway… I don’t know. So, yes, to the degree that art is often permissive, allowing the eye to fuse with the world, in a way that is not the same as necessarily imposing the world on it, but having a fusion with it. I feel like that’s what happened with this little piece of land. And not in an exclusive way, hopefully, I think the fact there was so much work involved to make it happen, and I was psyched for all of that, that also has to mean there was a deep personal investment in it, the kind that artmaking comes from.
I know that activism can do that too, but because I have less of a steady history of activism, I think the fusion with artmaking is what liberated a lot of energy. And even more was liberated because it also felt activist…. In somewhat constrained ways but the activist part that is particularly exciting for me, which is also true with the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials project, is working with people I wouldn’t normally be working with otherwise. And that’s this potential for finding relationships that cross class and race and neighborhood. That was a huge part of the energy involved with the DuSable Park project.
DT: In a lot of ways these projects are very different, but there are some sort of formal and organizational qualities that make them overlap. How do you think the framework of something like the “open call” style project, how you think this framework functions differently or similarly to other kind of forms of getting together around a question or a challenge? I see the open call in both projects as a sort of a device that enables all sorts of relationships and questions. There are other devices for getting people together, whether they are like policy issues or conflicts or friendship networks, there are various other ways that people intersect with one another, and I guess what I’m curious about is what are the lessons of how this device works uniquely? Knowing it also that both issues, whether urban planning or police torture, have had more conventional forms of activism and organizing oriented towards them or directed at them, why would people be so into using these experimental open calls?
LP: Going back to DuSable Park, Friends of the Parks couldn’t make sense of why I would do the call independent from the city at first and then they were happy because they could see that that form [did a lot], without it having to be realistic, that’s the key I think in both cases, the proposals didn’t have to show a kind of do-ability. The proposals were expressive, for lack of a better word, or they could be expressive. The Friends of the Park people were totally excited about a Lesbian Bathtub Retirement Home as one of the proposals, for example. And so were the DuSable League women. It didn’t matter what the proposal was, because the larger project was what mattered. And it was the fact that so many people put time into it, got engaged with that larger project.
And I think there is something about, I guess going back to teaching, how you frame an assignment that draws something out of people that they feel empowered to make confident [proposals]. People like to be challenged with something, whether they are artists or not. And in both cases, we framed it so that you didn’t have to be an artist to make a proposal but most of the participants were involved with art in some form, although they weren’t by any means of a specific art world. You know, they came from all different art worlds.
Actually the DuSable project—because we held some charrettes that were at the library —there were people that got involved who had never made anything, and we, some of our students, were working with them to realize a proposal. So, that was also going on, “Oh, someone is going to help me make an artwork.”
Part of me, again, on the theoretical realm, which is an abstraction but still meaningful to me, I think about singularity and multiplicity in relation to activist projects where people, feel that they are projecting themselves —“singular” — at the same time as being part of a collective “many”…I don’t even think of art as projecting your self, necessarily, but making a collective successfully means having lots of room for the singular in it… And without interrupting anybody else’s singularity… I think that is the structure that really interests me with these open call formats.
And then I think part of what happens is that people, through the open-endedness, start exploring the questions that are questions that they didn’t think they’d get into otherwise, like public or private ownership, and who gets to go where…It is sort of a hook. And I’m not saying it was strategic. The thing that I like about the DuSable project and I think it works differently with the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials but with DuSable Park I felt like, and I said this before, it could be art, it could be a playful wild profusion of ideas and all of that could be leveraged towards pushing the City to do something. They could both be effective and neither one compromised. And I think with CTJM it is more strategic in that from the inception of the project, the idea was that the justice system is not working to find justice for the people tortured and so how can we bring cultural work to bear on this issue that will be able to be used strategically to gain justice and recognition. Part of that recognition comes through the proposals themselves and the exhibition as a whole because so many more people know about it and there’s an honoring going on, but now after the initial exhibition and events, the thrust of that project is more political, So the exhibition is a little bit more instrumental, and I’m really excited about that possibility too. And I think that, again, that’s been there from the beginning.
DT: Considering the kind of struggle that is associated around police brutality in Chicago and everywhere, and the policy and reparations stuff that you are navigating with CTJM in relationship to idea you brought up about a more instrumentalized/strategic kind of art, is that something that you have engaged before or is this a new type of direct engagement? I’m curious if there has been a shift for you or you are channeling something from another part of your life that has always been separate from art…
LP: Am I understanding your question to be more of the straightforward politics?
DT: Yes. I guess another way of asking is, this project deals with more straightforward politics than most of your other work. Your past work deals with more of a social question, or environmental questions, or even with the DuSable project is like…there are people that care about DuSable Park and there is a political history to it, but it is not like a site of conflict in the same way that something like police brutality is…So I’m curious if this is a new territory to be engaging? Is it something new?
LP: It is exciting to me to be working in collaboration with people who do have long histories with that kind of political work and I feel like it is a true collaboration. No, I don’t have other invisible strands that have been going on steadily and now they are becoming manifest, I feel like my interests and concern have been present, but my mode of thinking things through and working, even with the Flood project, has been much more mediated through materiality, and like you said sociality… And so what is happening with Chicago Torture Justice Memorials is a function of the diversity of participants who bring some really long-term, deeply knowledgeable activist experience to this. And so I get the opportunity to work in tandem with that and bring whatever I bring, but I would likely not have been able to feel this sense of connection to Darrell Cannon or Anthony Holmes, for example, without working with people who have been in relationship to Darrell and Anthony for decades. And so, I am excited about this CTJM project in part because of the people it allows me to work with and get to know. This is the thing about working collaboratively, you can’t do it all, you get to be a part.
DT: The way that we are framing this comes out of the concern about the rhetoric that is used to understand and talk about socially and politically engaged art. And our interest is that it is not often adequate because it doesn’t actually get at all the things that happen. And so part of the experiment with this is by calling the project Never the Same is that we would sort of foreground something about transformative events and experiences. Both ones that sort of catalyzed a community or a group of people to like do something differently than they had before but also something on the level of an individual or group practice that shifted something. So that is an aside. But something I wanted to ask you is about other projects you feel like have been these kind of transformative or catalytic events for you that changed how you thought about art or Chicago?
LP: Flood and the DuSable park project and CTJM are all still exciting projects for me and they all keep going. They stand out that way for me because there are so many pieces to them. The idea of there not being adequate language to talk about work that is socially engaged, is real because how do you corral all the things that it feels like happens in a project for you, for one person, not to mention when there are many other people involved who are all experiencing it differently?
DT: I’m curious about the relationship between your individual practice and group stuff? I want to provide some way to talk about the projects that are somehow much smaller but are still really meaningful and in a way can be overshadowed when you do really complicated organizational stuff.
LP: As I understand your project more I feel more permission to talk about some of the ways in which some projects, that haven’t been collaborative necessarily in any explicitly formal way, that they have been about following my curiosity. And I guess there’s so much to say about art as research and trying to formalize what that means, but I think so many people that go into it just really want to know about the world they are living in. If they can turn it into some form that twists it into something else, another way of understanding it, there’s something exciting to live for.
Projects like City Deposits (2005), which was about wanting to investigate the materiality of land, and specifically wanting to learn about the holes that had been dug inside the grid of Chicago and being amazed that Union Park had been a giant hole and when we go there to do parades or marches we are just marching on garbage…. There’s a series of works that came out of anti-gentrification work when I was thinking about space in the city, and linked to the Department of Space and Land Reclamation (2001) discussions that were going on then. But these also came from just being interested in land as matter and my basic inability to understand land as private property. It is a sort of fundamental resistance, or refusal, not necessarily even on a political level, but more like, I don’t get why someone should have to, or could, own this. That dumb refusal to understand the abstractions of private property led to City Deposits, which was basically a research project that took form as a little book and a gallery installation– less explicitly political but connected to other interests that had to do with acting politically in other realms.
The Oxygen Bar (2005) project, initially sited in Pittsburgh, was developed in relation to a piece of land there…. It was sort of linked to ideas related to the DuSable Park project, in terms of public participation in land use. The Oxygen Bars were objects that I pushed around on the street in Pittsburgh. It twisted away from whatever kind of relationship it had initially to trying to save the land and it became an excuse to have public conversations with people about anything they wanted to talk about. It became a way to break the anonymity of street culture. …I think that for me was the main thing about that project. It was just so much fun. But those oxygen bars came back to Chicago and got reused by Debbie Gould and me to take greens from our backyard garden and distribute them in the neighborhood we lived in and that became also a way to get to know people.
DT: Well, maybe another way to talk about some different projects relates to something that I’m really interested in your work: the interplay between work that has more of a material resolution and work that has more of a social activation or engagement. As far as I can tell, you’ve done projects that are much more material, projects that are much more socially engaged, and then you’ve done a number of things that actually bridge the two, that take an object that you’ve made and they sort of become interactive devices. You can talk about anything specifically, but I’m interested in how that interplay works for you over a longer term, like across a bunch of different projects over time?
LP: Well, I do think that object relations matter in the sense that it is good to have something to touch and something to see and something to get you outside of yourself that can triangulate a relationship with somebody else. That is fundamental to art making, whether it is more or less of an actual object. There is a lot of complexity in having a conversation with someone, and there is more and different complexity that comes in when you are working with materials that don’t actually speak. I studied art and I love art. I love when I’m amazed and excited about something that I’m looking at but that I don’t understand, and then I try to make my own kind of sense of it. And I love when I’m working on something and it turns that corner and becomes something I don’t understand. On some level I live for that. And it could probably be generalized to something that happens that is not only material and not only art. Something that happens with an idea or a conversation…. Sometimes you are talking to someone and together you turn a corner. It is like evolution, a little bit of evolution. That is exciting, and sometimes the way to try to do that for me is making stuff.
Making is hard to do collectively and I am aware of it being sort of lonely but sometimes I love being alone. It is not about solo reflective, it is more that idea of auto-poiesis — when the thing makes itself — or when you have some kind of dialogue with “stuff” and then the thing starts to talk back to you or it starts to become something on its own and then you have to follow after it. It can happen in lots of different ways.
DT: Something that I’ve had more of an appreciation for, as I focused time reading a bunch of your stuff and looking back at different projects, is your recurring reference or questioning around social relations, but specifically the “I and the we”, the individual and the collective. I think I was just struck by the actual recurring articulation of it as a question, and so I’m curious about that for you, if you could describe a little bit your trajectory around thinking about the I and the we.
LP: It is funny because I just put on my website a talk I gave in 1996…that was quoting Ogden Nash, “If I were you I’d call me us.” I gave another talk this fall about a new project that I’m trying to bring into some form about lichen and I found myself talking about the symbiosis of fungi and algae. I had an exchange with Donna Haraway and some other people at UCSC this fall, in a really generative think tank situation there about all this and I thought, oh, they get it. They are in on these ideas of multiple selves..of course.
And then I went back and I thought, “This sounds really familiar.” I realized that I had written a talk twenty years ago that I could still get behind. And so I would love to say there is a trajectory but then I could also say I haven’t moved… I’ve been feeling this a lot Daniel. This summer I had a little bit of time,and I went through a bunch of old stuff stored in my studio and looking at old projects I was thinking, “Oh my god, I did this back then and I’m doing it again now.” I had to come to terms with that. On some level there are certain things that we continue to try to work out all our lives. And I just have to accept that’s okay, I’m still doing that.
One of biggest things that you are picking up on is that relation between self and other or maybe I and we is a better way to phrase it, as you did. I think the long-term collaboration with Haha was all about that. We always made a point of saying that we have this collaboration and it is one entity, and we also all have our own separate artistic entities as well. You know, that was something we always stressed. And it was important for all of us to do both and it was exhausting to do both. I have so much respect for people who never felt, or they decided, that they didn’t have to do both but I’ve always had to do both.
I guess it is just one of those things. At the same time I think of myself as so multiple. I don’t feel there is a single Laurie that working solo is all about articulating. I feel like the solo work is as much about working out my sense of multiplicity — only it is not necessarily with other humans. It is about a multiplicity of relations with materiality or over time that is not fixable. I think the oscillation between the I and the we is one version of the non-fixed identity or non-fixed in time sense of being. And that’s an instability and indeterminacy that has defined my experience of being alive for as long as I can remember.